Book Review: Lolita

It’s been a week since I posted anything (update: I just posted “Dear Chicago”), and it’s been three or four days since I finished Lolita. I freely admit that I’ve been putting off writing this review.

I didn’t want to finish Lolita. It’s one of those books that are difficult to pick back up once put down, because you know that it can’t possibly end well. I took a break from Lolita hoping that the girl would die and that Humbert Humbert would end up castrated. That seemed like the best possible conclusion. It wasn’t until I had put down the novel and felt a huge rush of relief that I realised how nauseating I found Humbert’s narrative of his sexual experiences with an adolescent girl.

I’ve done little additional research on this novel and its reception, but it has quite the reputation. It’s controversial, obviously, because of the topics it considers. It was originally received, as I understand, with Lolita cast as a villain, a twelve-year-old seductress to whom Humbert Humbert could not help but succumb. It’s supposed to be erotic.

I’ve been pondering for days how I might write my reaction to Lolita without becoming overly moralising, raging against the academic community’s reflection of a victim-blaming mentality in this novel. It’s a story about pedophilia and we already know that. What I want to focus on instead is the power of perspective that Nabokov utilises masterfully, to the point where the reader is tempted to sympathise with Humbert Humbert despite the rational knowledge of the pain he inflicts on an adolescent. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, Lolita is a love story. He falls in love with a nymphet, possesses her, loses her, finds her, and loves her still.

“Nymphet” is the crucial word. It’s such a small detail, the use of the term “nymphet” instead of “girl,” but it makes all the difference. Humbert Humbert describes nymphets as a virtually separate species that appear as adolescent girls, but he ascribes to them a sexuality and maturity far beyond any twelve-year-old. The nymphet can be as young as nine and as old as approximately fourteen, and she has an aura about her that a normal little girl could never hope to capture. Humbert’s description of Lolita as a nymphet means that, according to him, she can’t be harmed by his eroticisation like other girls her age. Essentially, she’s asking for it. She is the temptress and he falls under her spell. In case his reader has a difficult time imagining a little girl with such a powerful allure, Humbert Humbert assures us that this is no ordinary little girl, but a nymphet, who exists outside of social norms and expectations.

The power of the novel is the degree to which Nabokov digs his heels into Humbert Humbert and his personality, wrapping a web around the reader until we can’t help but sympathise. We want Humbert to find Lolita, to live in contentment with her. When Charlotte finds a diary of Humbert’s fantasies, we panic because he’s found out. We’re loyal to his secret, complicit in his crime without realising it. Nabokov puts into the hands of the reader as much power of interpretation as he possibly can– he never slips out of Humbert’s voice, never fumbles and reveals him overtly as a villain. Instead, we sink further and further into Humbert Humbert’s account, marking points of justification and conjuring up a tangible, realistic human voice that takes the place of a faceless and unnamed pedophile.

Through Lolita, Nabokov reveals himself as a master of erotic language. None of the scenes are explicit, all sexual activity hides under a thin veil of euphemism, but sensuality pervades every moment, transition, and moment of musing. Humbert Humbert is obsessed with the smallest of details, the glimmer of bared skin between a shirt and shorts, the shape of lips biting into an apple, the shower in the next room creaking on. Even with the companionship of Lolita, he remains aware of the presence of other “nymphets” and the sexual satisfaction their proximity provides. The attention to sensual detail turns the entire novel into an engagement and satisfaction of the senses, and Humbert Humbert’s underlying obsession with sexual stimulation bleeds through even when he takes the time to describe the most mundane of situations, be it breakfast or a car ride.

Finishing Lolita was a relief. Spending a week in Humbert Humbert’s mind made me want to take a mental bath and try to scrub myself clean of his perversion of every possible scene. My emotional reaction made it hard to analyse, hence the time I’ve taken to write this review. In terms of technical skill, Nabokov has me dazzled. I can’t imagine a more convincing insight into Humbert Humbert’s mind, although admittedly I’m not sure I would want one.

I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the big “why” question: why would anyone want to write this, and why would anyone want to read it? My first semester at Loyola, I took an introductory poetry course. One of the poems we read and discussed in class was written from the perspective of a serial rapist, with indications of mental disability and some limited insight into the rapist’s childhood and the satisfaction he achieved through his actions. Several of my classmates couldn’t push past how disgusting the content of the poem was, and we moved into a discussion about when or whether art can go too far. I asserted, and I still maintain, that art has no limits, in subject or style. In writing, the artist has no responsibility beyond telling a story and revealing some species of truth. The artist doesn’t have to provide a moral solution or judgment; that’s for the reader to conjure, if they choose. I have no idea what drove Nabokov to write a novel from the perspective of a pedophile, but I respect that this is a story that has just much right to be told as any other. Perhaps Nabokov wanted to point out that it might be easy for us to condemn people like Humbert Humbert when they remain faceless and nameless, but they still equal everyone else in complexity. Perhaps he simply found the notion of writing from this niche perspective an attractive project. It’s the way that his work resonates in us, the emotions and thoughts that he stirs up and the clear water that he obscures with the muck of uncertainty that has the power to change both art and life.

On the back cover of my copy of Lolita, there’s a quote from Vanity Fair that calls this novel “the only convincing love story of our century.” That quote sums up both the emotional problems I have with the story and the intellectual interest it piques in me. A love story? Is that what this is? My disgust at Humbert Humbert overwhelmingly screams no. It depends, however, on what definition of love is at play. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, he might very well tell a story of love. What if the novel were retold from Lomita’s perspective? Then it might be a story of corruption, or abuse, or destruction. And then there’s my perspective, as the reader. I don’t call this love, but I suppose someone else might. I do wonder what Nabokov might have intended. Did he know he was writing a love story– or did he have a very different tale in mind?

Cited: Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Random House Inc., 1955. Print.

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